Tolkien and women – I´m not the only one who´s interested!

The current elevated state of Tolkien-related excitement owing to the release of the first “Hobbit” movie (which I loved, by the way! Some minor quibbles, but on the whole it was a lot of fun) has led a couple of other people to look into the issue of how women fit into Tolkien´s world – and their efforts, in Time and Slate respectively, have garnered a great deal more attention than my humble efforts here in this little corner of cyberspace (though somebody did link to my Haleth article in the comments after the Time piece, which pleased me very much!)

The piece by Ruth Davis Konigsberg in Time magazine, entitled “The Hobbit: Why Are There No Women in Tolkien´s World”, and available online here, was frankly rather poor – not surprisingly so, as the author appears to have little familiarity with the source material (she says that she “did not read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child”, leaving it ambiguous whether she has read them since) and confines her comments to the first part of Jackson´s “Hobbit” trilogy, without any effort to look at the number of female characters present throughout Tolkien´s legendarium and the kind of roles they play. In fairness, Davis Konigsberg makes no pretence that her breezy little article is anything other than a bite-sized opinion piece designed to generate clicks and comments, but I can´t help thinking that if major publications are going to publish articles on Tolkien´s world (and believe me, I´m glad to see them doing it) they should entrust the job to someone rather better-informed about the subject-matter in hand.  As it is, a great deal of the comments below the line demonstrate a far surer grasp of the material than the article itself.

Actually more of a disappointment to me personally, however, was Alyssa Rosenberg´s article in Slate, “We Don´t Need Women in The Hobbit” (available here). I say it was a disappointment because I have previously enjoyed Alyssa´s observations on female characters in popular culture, and particularly on “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the associated HBO series. In this case, however, I felt that her argument was fundamentally flawed, and that those flaws were the result of a basic unfamiliarity with the material (something which a number of other commenters were quick to point out below the line). The basic premise of the article is that Cate Blanchett´s Galadriel was somehow shoehorned into the movie to ensure that somebody with two X chromosomes got some screen time, and that this smacked of tokenism. This is not, however, accurate. If anything was “shoehorned” into the movie, it was the White Council subplot itself, and not Galadriel – who, although she doesn´t appear in “The Hobbit”, was clearly very much involved in the simultaneous decision to eject the Necromancer from Dol Guldur. Tokenism really doesn´t come into the picture here – once Jackson had decided to incorporate the White Council storyline (and I for one am very glad he did, although I understand that not everybody agrees with me there), Galadriel, along with Saruman, needed to be in the movie.

Although I wasn´t particularly impressed by either of the articles, I suppose I should be pleased merely to see major media outlets publishing articles on Tolkien on their websites, and encouraging their readers to join in the debate. However, I´m really not that pleased about it at all, and I suppose the reason is this. Poorly researched and written articles (particularly pieces like Davis Konigsberg´s, which unfortunately can be summarised as “Tolkien´s works don´t appeal to women as there are no women in them”) tend to confirm certain unfortunate stereotypes about feminists and others interested in issues of gender and popular culture, implying that we have a myopic focus on the number of X chromosomes within a book, film or show, and are incapable of enjoying anything that doesn´t fulfil certain quotas of equal representation. You can see this in the comments, with outraged readers (both male and female) asking whether the authors want to rewrite “Moby Dick” to include more female characters, or letting Tolkien off the hook because he is writing about a medieval-style world (because there were no women in the Middle Ages, right?). There are even a few comments stating that Tolkien is “for men”, and that women should just back off “men´s stuff” and read “Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants”, which is both nonsensical (I have known just as many female Tolkien fans as male ones – and this observation predates the association with Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom) and offensive.

Most annoying of all, however, is the conclusion that many seem to draw from this kind of article – that the issue it tries and fails to raise, that of the representation of women in Tolkien´s world, is not worth discussing. This irritates me because it seems very clear to me that on the contrary, we should be talking about why there are four times as many named male characters as female ones in Tolkien´s world. Why, although his books do contain a number of very memorable female characters (Eowyn and Galadriel being the obvious examples in the LoTR), he seems at times to have actively avoided writing about women – note just how many of his characters in the LoTR are bachelors, and how most of those who did at some point have wives (Denethor, Elrond, Theoden) have conveniently lost them through death or departure to Valinor. And – most interesting of all to me – how sometimes within the course of a single text (the Laws and Customs of the Eldar being the perfect example) he can go from demonstrating seemingly progressive attitudes towards gender roles (for example, in his acknowledgement that female Elves are capable of doing everything the men do) to embracing a kind of gender-based biological determinism which ensures that whatever their capabilities, his female characters remain overwhelmingly confined to traditionally “female” spheres (in other words, female Elves can fight, and learn lore, and do metalwork – but most of them choose to dedicate themselves to their children and weave the odd tapestry). To me, these are interesting and relevant questions which,  like discussions of mortality, or religion, or good and evil in Tolkien´s world, have the potential to lead to far more fruitful and thought-provoking discussion than age-old questions about Balrog wings or whether Tom Bombadil is Aule in disguise.

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One thought on “Tolkien and women – I´m not the only one who´s interested!

  1. Thanks very much for writing. This is a topic I find really fascinating, and I’m happy to have come across your blog.

    I read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” a few years ago (when the movies of LotR were being released) and am now rereading. There’s always this mixture of love and frustration whenever I’m reading a book that has so many awesome parts and writing, but which contains some questionable aspects, whether about gender or race or other similar topics where discrimination can be involved.

    There’s always this misunderstanding, I think, (as you point out) that people will assume that if a person wants to bring up issues of gender, then that means they only want to read books with characters of their gender. That’s not the case at all; I find myself really loving lots of books that have mostly male characters. At the same time, I have to wonder why there is this big discrepancy in so many books; I mean, if some books had more male characters and some had more female characters, and it overall balanced out, that would be one thing—but there seems to be an imbalance overall in society, not just in a few books.

    I think part of reading should be that we can read books with characters different from ourselves and relate to them, but that should (ideally) go in all directions, with people who are in the majority being willing to read books with characters different from them, too, not just with people in the minority always reading books with characters different from them.

    Thanks again for writing! I look forward to reading more of your blog.

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